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Beatnik
Beatnik

Beatnik, a media stereotype of the 1950s and early 1960s, was a synthesis of the more superficial aspects of the Beat Generation literary movement of the 1950s into a cartoonish (and sometimes violent) misrepresentation of the real-life people and the spirituality found in Jack Kerouac's autobiographical fiction. Kerouac spoke out against this misdirected detour from his original concept.

Kerouac introduced the phrase "Beat Generation" in 1948, generalizing from his social circle to characterize the underground, anticonformist youth gathering in New York at that time. The name came up in conversation with the novelist John Clellon Holmes who published an early Beat Generation novel, Go (1952), along with a manifesto in The New York Times Magazine: "This Is the Beat Generation". In 1954. Nolan Miller published his third novel, Why I Am So Beat (Putnam), detailing the weekend parties of four students.

The adjective "beat" was introduced to the group by Herbert Huncke, though Kerouac expanded the meaning of the term. "Beat" came from underworld slang—the world of hustlers, drug addicts and petty thieves, where Ginsberg and Kerouac sought inspiration. "Beat" was slang for "beaten down" or downtrodden, but to Kerouac, it also had a spiritual connotation as in "beatitude". Other adjectives discussed by Holmes and Kerouac were "found" and "furtive." Kerouac felt he had identified (and was the embodiment of) a new trend analogous to the influential Lost Generation.

In "Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation" Kerouac criticized what he saw as a distortion of his visionary, spiritual ideas:

* "The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg in an even wilder way, in the late Forties, of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way—a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word "beat" spoken on street corners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of postwar America—beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction. We'd even heard old 1910 Daddy Hipsters of the streets speak the word that way, with a melancholy sneer. It never meant juvenile delinquents, it meant characters of a special spirituality who didn't gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization..."

Kerouac explained what he meant by "beat" at a Brandeis Forum, "Is There A Beat Generation?", on November 8, 1958, at New York's Hunter College Playhouse. Panelists for the seminar were Kerouac, James A. Wechsler, Princeton anthropologist Ashley Montagu, and author Kingsley Amis. Wechsler, Montague and Amis all wore suits, while Kerouac was clad in black jeans, ankle boots and a checkered shirt. Reading from a prepared text, Kerouac reflected on his beat beginnings:

* "It is because I am Beat, that is, I believe in beatitude and that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son to it... Who knows, but that the universe is not one vast sea of compassion actually, the veritable holy honey, beneath all this show of personality and cruelty?"

Kerouac's address was later published as "The Origins of the Beat Generation" (Playboy, June 1959). In that article Kerouac noted how his original beatific philosophy had been ignored amid maneuvers by several pundits, among them Herb Caen, the San Francisco newspaperman, to alter Kerouac's concept with jokes and jargon:

* "I went one afternoon to the church of my childhood and had a vision of what I must have really meant with "Beat"... the vision of the word Beat as being to mean beatific . . . People began to call themselves beatniks, beats, jazzniks, bopniks, bugniks and finally I was called the "avatar" of all this."

In her memoir, Minor Characters, Joyce Johnson described how the stereotype was absorbed into American culture:

* "'Beat Generation' sold books, sold black turtleneck sweaters and bongos, berets and dark glasses, sold a way of life that seemed like dangerous fun—thus to be either condemned or imitated. Suburban couples could have beatnik parties on Saturday nights and drink too much and fondle each other’s wives."

Kerouac biographer Ann Charters noted that the term "Beat" was appropriated to become a Madison Avenue marketing tool:

* "The term caught on because it could mean anything. It could even be exploited in the affluent wake of the decade’s extraordinary technological inventions. Almost immediately, for example, advertisements by "hip" record companies in New York used the idea of the Beat Generation to sell their new long playing vinyl records."

Lee Streiff, an acquaintance of many members of the movement who went on to become one of its chroniclers, believed that the news media saddled the movement for the long term with a set of false images:

* "Reporters are not generally well versed in artistic movements, or the history of literature or art. And most are certain that their readers, or viewers, are of limited intellectual ability and must have things explained simply, in any case. Thus, the reporters in the media tried to relate something that was new to already preexisting frameworks and images that were only vaguely appropriate in their efforts to explain and simplify. With a variety of oversimplified and conventional formulas at their disposal, they fell back on the nearest stereotypical approximation of what the phenomenon resembled, as they saw it. And even worse, they did not see it clearly and completely at that. They got a quotation here and a photograph there — and it was their job to wrap it up in a comprehensible package — and if it seemed to violate the prevailing mandatory conformist doctrine, they would also be obliged to give it a negative spin as well. And in this, they were aided and abetted by the Poetic Establishment of the day. Thus, what came out in the media: from newspapers, magazines, TV, and the movies, was a product of the stereotypes of the 30s and 40s — though garbled — of a cross between a 1920s Greenwich Village bohemian artist and a Bop musician, whose visual image was completed by mixing in Daliesque paintings, a beret, a Vandyck beard, a turtleneck sweater, a pair of sandals, and set of bongo drums. A few authentic elements were added to the collective image: poets reading their poems, for example, but even this was made unintelligible by making all of the poets speak in some kind of phony Bop idiom. The consequence is, that even though we may know now that these images do not accurately reflect the reality of the Beat movement, we still subconsciously look for them when we look back to the 50s. We have not even yet completely escaped the visual imagery that has been so insistently forced upon us."

The word "beatnik" was coined by Herb Caen in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 2, 1958. Caen coined the term by adding the Russian suffix -nik after Sputnik I to the Beat Generation. Caen's column with the word came six months after the launch of Sputnik. Objecting to Caen's twist on the term, Allen Ginsberg wrote to the New York Times to deplore "the foul word beatnik," commenting, "If beatniks and not illuminated Beat poets overrun this country, they will have been created not by Kerouac but by industries of mass communication which continue to brainwash man."

In the vernacular of the period, "Beat" indicated the culture, the attitude and the literature, while the common usage of "beatnik" was that of a stereotype found in lightweight cartoon drawings and twisted, sometimes violent, media characters. This distinction was clarified by Boston University professor Ray Carney, a leading authority on beat culture, in "The Beat Movement in Film," his notes for a 1995 Whitney Museum exhibition and screening:

* "Much of Beat culture represented a negative stance rather than a positive one. It was animated more by a vague feeling of cultural and emotional displacement, dissatisfaction, and yearning, than by a specific purpose or program. It would be a lot easier if we were only looking for movies with "beatniks" in them. San Francisco columnist Herb Caen coined the word (which by sarcastically punning on the recently launched Russian Sputnik was apparently intended to cast doubt on the beatnik's red-white-and-blue-blooded all-Americanness). And the mass media popularized the concept. Dobie Gillis, Life magazine, Charles Kuralt, and a host of other entertainers and journalists reduced Beatness to a set of superficial, silly externals which have stayed with us ever since: goatees, sunglasses, poetry readings, coffeehouses, slouches and "cool, man, cool" jargon. The only problem is there never were any beatniks in this sense (except, perhaps, for the media influenced imitators who came along late in the history of the movement). Beat culture was a state of mind, not a matter of how you dressed or talked or where you lived. In fact, Beat culture was far from monolithic. It was many different, conflicting, shifting states of mind. The films and videos that have been selected for the screening list are an attempt to move beyond the cultural clichés and slogans, to look past the Central Casting costumes, props, and jargon the mass media equated with Beatness, in order to do justice to its spirit."

Since 1958, the terms Beat Generation and Beat have been used to describe the antimaterialistic literary movement that began with Kerouac in 1948, stretching on into the 1960s. The Beat philosophy of antimaterialism and soul searching influenced 1960s musicians such as Bob Dylan, the early Pink Floyd and The Beatles.

At the time that the terms were coined, there was a trend amongst young college students to adopt the stereotype, with men wearing goatees and berets, rolling their own cigarettes and playing bongos. Fashions for women included black leotards and wearing their hair long, straight and unadorned in a rebellion against the middle class culture of beauty salons. Marijuana use was associated with the subculture, and during the 1950s, Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception further influenced views on drugs.

By 1960, a small 'beatnik' community in Newquay, Cornwall, England (including a young Wizz Jones) had attracted the attention and the abhorrence of their neighbours, for growing their hair to a length that was then quite abnormally long (past the shoulders), for which they were interviewed by the BBC's Alan Whicker for national television.

The Beat philosophy was generally countercultural and antimaterialistic and it stressed the importance of bettering one's inner self over and above material possessions. Some Beat writers began to delve into Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Taoism. Politics tended to be liberal; with support for causes such as desegregation (although many of the figures associated with the original Beat movement, particularly William Burroughs, embraced libertarian/conservative ideas). An openness to African-American culture and arts was apparent in literature and music, notably jazz. While Caen and other writers implied a connection with communism, there was no obvious or direct connection between the beat philosophy (as expressed by the leading authors of this literary movement) and the philosophy of the communist movement, other than the antipathy that both philosophies shared towards capitalism.

Although Beatnik was oriinally a derogatory term, it has become more neutral and many people now call themselves beatniks. The main types of music that Beatniks listen to are Jazz, blues, experimental and alternative.

Image from deviantart, info from wikipedia.

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